Central Maine Power utility lines are seen, Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2021, in Pownal, Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

PORTLAND, Maine — The tug of war over the future of Central Maine Power is continuing behind the scenes, with utility opponents seeking to thwart a referendum to require voter approval for long-term debt for the proposed buyout.

A CMP-backed referendum would create a hurdle to a proposal to dismantle the utility and create a consumer-owned entity by requiring voters to sign off on billions of dollars of debt needed to pay off the utility’s owners.

CMP opponents responded by inserting language in their own referendum to exempt the buyout debt from voter approval.

“They’ve gone out of their way to keep voters from having a say on taking on billions of dollars in new debt,” said Willy Ritch from Maine Affordable Energy, which opposes the breakup of CMP.

Rep. Seth Berry, sponsor of the proposal in the Legislature to transform Maine’s privately held utilities into a consumer-owned entity, said the new language requires long-term borrowing to be exempted from a statewide vote unless it also applies equally to CMP’s borrowing.

The revised language exempting borrowing from public approval was submitted to the secretary of state’s office on Sept. 16, about a week after Ritch announced his referendum.

Ritch said that his group is proceeding with the referendum, finalizing the language and reviewing its options.

The thrust-and-parry applies to referendums that could be on the ballot next year. Signatures necessary to put them on the ballot have not yet been collected by backers of either effort.

The referendum drives came after Gov. Janet Mills vetoed Berry’s proposal to buy out Central Maine Power and Versant Power and replace them with a consumer-owned utility called Pine Tree Power.

The new entity would keep rates low, respond faster to outages and support clean energy projects, supporters said.

Critics accused the bill’s supporters of underestimating the cost of buying the utility companies and said ratepayers would be saddled with billions of dollars of debt from the purchase and litigation.

Ritch said some estimates suggest Mainers would have to take on up to $13 billion in debt through tax-exempt bonds.

“Mainers want to know how much the check is going to be made out for before they sign,” he said. “That’s why we came up with our proposal to give voters the final say.”